How to Make your Best Students Better

The one percent

As a kid, and through high school, I loved standardized tests. Because I was the maddening specimen who scored in the 99th percentile without a flicker of effort.

Given the bias in standardized tests, it’s not surprising. I was a white kid who had been reading voraciously since age four. I was going to ace anything that measured “verbal” skills, which are, of course, in the context of the tests, reading and writing skills.

Being a killer test taker had advantages. My high school SAT and ACT scores got me into an Ivy League university, and scooped a National Merit Scholarship to help pay for it. Not bad for a poor kid from a decaying seaside town in Oregon.

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Feeding the need

Being Little Miss 99th Percentile felt good. My teachers liked it because I brought up the class average. I liked it because it got me positive attention. My parents? They didn’t care, which is perhaps why cared so much. Acing those tests was more than an academic achievement, it was much-needed validation. Terrified of losing that, I gravitated towards subjects that came easy: English, history, communication, psychology.

Unfortunately, one thing they didn’t teach in first-year psych was that effort counts for more than “intelligence”. Though, to be fair, the results of Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck’s landmark study on the relationship between praise and motivation weren’t published till 1998, my second year of college.

Mueller and Dweck gave kids a series of tests. One group was praised for their intelligence, the other for their effort. They found that the children who were praised for intelligence were reluctant to try more difficult tests, while those praised for effort were eager to try harder tasks.

Kids singled out for “intelligence” were afraid of doing anything that might show them up. Like those kids, I avoided challenges, got good grades and learned almost nothing.

Opportunities lost

Each month, as I make my student loan payment (still chipping away at that. Thank you American tertiary education system), I think about the classes I avoided: Spanish, math, organic chemistry. I went to university planning to major in chemistry and go on to med school. Sophomore year, I changed to English lit.

It was the right decision, made for the wrong reasons. My motivation wasn’t love of literature and language but fear of math and science. If I couldn’t waltz into an exam and out with an A, I wasn’t even going to try.

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The teacher’s view

Looking back, I wish teachers had pushed me more — especially in the subjects I was good at. Maybe, then, I would have realized my skills weren’t “innate” and would have learned to apply myself.

But, as a teacher myself, I can’t blame them. Having a “good” student, one who enjoys and seems to effortlessly absorb the material, is a treat. S/he is one student you don’t have to worry about, one whose enthusiasm and aptitude makes you feel good about yourself as an educator, even if you don’t really deserve the credit. It is tempting to praise the student and more or less leave them to his/her/their own devices.

Tempting, but an abdication of responsibility. Perhaps the student is doing well because h/s/t are an adept learner. In that case, you should see the work gradually improve. If you don’t, chances are they’re coasting on an existing skill set. And without intervention, they may well be self-limiting to stay within that safety zone.

Breaking out of the success trap

How do you challenge a student in an area where they excel? Here are three ideas:

Process

Once, in a job interview, I was asked: “How do you write?”

It was the first time anyone had asked about my process. Formulating an answer made me realize that I had one, and that it could be applied to other tasks.

If you have a student who shines at art, trigonometry, whatever, as them how. They might think it’s a dumb question (I did) but they will discover the work that goes into their accomplishments. Recognizing their own effort and process will help them see themselves as learners, and start to generalize those skills.

Cross-pollination

Use your students strengths to address their weaknesses. If, for example, your  student loves history but hates math, have them research the history of a mathematical concept, e.g. Who was Pythagoras and how did he come up with his theory? Thus tackling something hard becomes a chance to show off what they are good at.

Let them be the expert

Once your students have assessed their own process, reinforce that by giving them an opportunity to be the expert. Pair or small group work is a good setting to allow students to display their strengths. Set up assignments where they teach each other and grade them on how well their classmates do.

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Life-long learning

We tend to think of “life-long learning” in terms of adults but, to deserve the title, it has to start in childhood. The best, that is highest-achieving, students are necessarily the best learners. They may, in extreme cases, be learning very little.

Helping them uncover their process, use their skills to address new challenges, and share their strategies with others will develop those crucial skills.